"Half Truths: God Helps Those Who Help Themselves"
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them.
Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic—“I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”
Of the many half-truths commonly associated with the Christian scriptures, few get me a riled up as the phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.” It’s not that the sentiment is false (I’d actually call it a “3/4 truth” instead of a “half truth”); the problem is that this phrase is usually employed as a way to justify our judgment and condemnation of people whom we deem as unworthy of our help.
“God helps those who help themselves” is a philosophy that too-often sidesteps the importance of grace and gives us a false illusion of our role in the world.
This phrase is conditional; as in, if you do something and then earn something equal in response. For example, “If you eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert.” Christians ought to be careful in employing “if…then” conditional philosophies, because our God is not an “if…then” God.
Instead, God is an “I am” God.
God has always been and will always be the prime mover and the creator. God’s blessings are eternal and not dependent on our moral righteousness. There is nothing you or I can do to earn God’s love, forgiveness, blessing, or help. Likewise, there is nothing you or I can do to make God’s promises of love, forgiveness, blessing, and help invalid. We are sinners whom God loves dearly and freely forgives despite our not deserving forgiveness. This is grace – a bedrock of our faith and religious life.
We sidestep grace when we think that our decisions or actions are the basis for God’s corresponding response. This understanding prioritizes human initiative over God’s. As though we are in the driver’s seat. As though God withholds blessings until we earn them through making good, just, and correct decisions. It is as heretical to believe that we earn the blessings we receive as it is to believe that others deserve a lack of blessing. The beautiful truth is that grace is the first and last word, and we are privileged to live in its midst.
My primary theological issue with the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is that it leaves little room for the foundational and radical truth of grace. My primary practical issue with this phrase is that it shifts responsibility away from ourselves and solely onto the shoulders of the person who needs help–shoulders that simply cannot bear that burden.
It is true that we ultimately cannot make decisions on behalf of someone who needs help. For example, we cannot overcome someone else’s addiction for them. But everything up to that point is our shared communal responsibility. We, in community, bear responsibility to be present, to love, to persist, to forgive, and to be in relationship with those who need help, regardless of whether we thing they’re doing enough to deserve help.
I am reminded of an experience I had while serving as a hospital chaplain during seminary. One day a fellow student found himself in an argument with our supervisor over the role of a hospital chaplain (or any Christ-follower, for that matter). My colleague spoke about his frustration with a patient who didn’t seem to want to be healed. Our supervisor angrily told him he had no business judging the patient’s desire for healing or lack thereof.
Our supervisor proceeded to describe the chaplain’s role using an analogy of a pit. If someone is in a pit of despair or hopelessness, the chaplain’s role is not to stand safely at the precipice and lower a rope and command the person to get out (nor to judge the person if they didn’t grab onto the rope); but rather, the chaplain is to get down in the pit and be present with the person who is suffering.
We can never truly judge what motivates someone who is suffering. Our response is to be an unconditional, honest, supportive, non-anxious presence for people who are suffering. We strive to be empathetic and present, but we are not that suffering person’s savior and it is not for us to determine how or when someone makes it out of the pit.
Too often, we stand at the precipice of pits where people are suffering and yell down judgments like, “Do you even want to get better” or “You brought this on yourself” or “God helps those who help themselves.” These sentiments may come from honest and well-intentioned hearts, but they won’t make a bit of difference unless they are spoken from a place of vulnerability and empathy with the one who is suffering. Unless we first listen, we cannot understand what people believe about themselves and their worthiness or ability to be helped.
Joining people in their suffering is hard holy work; which is why it is never to be undertaken alone. This work requires a community of support and a network of relationship. Today’s gospel tells the story of four people who bring a paralyzed man to Jesus by lowering him through the roof into the home where Jesus is staying. The gospel story makes no mention of the paralyzed man’s desire for healing or why he was paralyzed in the first place. All we know is that there was a group of people who desired so deeply for the man to be healed by Jesus that they went to extraordinary measures to make that possible. We do not go to such great lengths unless we truly empathize with, and love, the person who is suffering.
Contrast that story with this one: Earlier this week Federal Judge Sarah Evans Barker spoke to a gathering of Indianapolis-area Lutheran clergy. She informed us that the overwhelming majority of people who appear before her in federal court for sentencing have no one show up in the gallery to support them. One could draw the conclusion, then, that the majority of people convicted of committing crimes are not connected to a community that empathizes with, and loves, them. The fact that every corner of our society is pushing further and further toward isolation and individualization will have disastrous consequences. The world needs empathetic, loving community now more than ever.
Imagine a community that doesn’t judge who is worthy of help and who is not; but rather is motivated by a the mission to stand in solidarity with all who suffer in the pits of despair.
Imagine a community that doesn’t shout instructions safely from the sidelines, but enters into the depths of despair in order to whisper words of peace and provide a comforting embrace.
Imagine a community not concerned with superficial appearances or conversation; but a community held together with authentic, compassionate, God-centered relationship.
I am here today because I found such a community. You see, I lost my faith in God while in college. It was a terrifying time for me. I do not recall which came first, but I experienced a debilitating depression at the same time. I barely managed to complete the last semester of my Junior year, but when I did I had no options for the summer. My plan was to return home and spend my days and nights sleeping, which often seemed like all I could do. But then I received a phone call from the director of the Lutheran summer camp where I had worked the previous two summers. She told me they were in desperate need of staff for the summer. As much as I pushed back, she was relentless. With nothing better to do, I showed up with the intention of serving as the lifeguard that summer.
A few nights into our staff training program, we were around the campfire sharing our faith stories. As each person spoke I became more and more nervous because for the first time I felt safe enough to open up about my lost faith, my struggles, my depression. I hadn’t shared any of that with anyone except my parents (and even with them I only told them part of the story). I hadn’t shared my experiences because the thing I feared most was rejection. I knew that my community of friends and family were the only positive force in my life at the time and I couldn’t risk losing their support. But there, around the fire, hearing other college-age students share their faith, questions, and doubts, I felt the courage to be honest.
And so I told the truth. I publicly announced my inability to believe in God, which up to that point had been my secret shame. Their response was neither pity nor condemnation. Instead, they thanked me, hugged me, and made it clear that they appreciated my presence and friendship. Many asked if I would be willing to talk more about my struggles so they could better understand.
At a time in my life when I felt completely helpless, a community of Christ followers joined me in my suffering, responded with unconditional grace, and helped me on the path back to faith and trust in a God who had been with me all along.
It is true that God helps those who help themselves; but it is also true, and infinitely more important, that God helps those who cannot help themselves. And the best part is that God helps us with that hard, holy work.